Beware of the blizzard | TheFencePost.com

Beware of the blizzard

Roger Merriman
Fence Post Publisher

It was late in the morning of Jan.12. It was sunny and almost balmy on the small farm just north of Altoona in eastern South Dakota.

Since the weather was so mild, the two men decided to take the opportunity to check their small herd of cattle.They didn’t have far to go, since the farthest part of the pasture was only about 1-1/2 miles away. They harnessed the team to a small wagon and began their journey. When they had finished checking the cattle, they turned the wagon around and began the journey home. They were in no hurry; it was great winter day and the weather was still good.

It was about 2 p.m. Lewis, the older of the two men, mentioned to the other about what appeared to be a quick graying of the sky in the west. They were not worried; they would be home in less than an hour.

They were making good progress despite a cold breeze that had started to blow. All of a sudden, a huge blast of wind hit them and almost turned the wagon over. It had started snowing heavily and was soon impossible to determine if they were even going in the right direction.

Lewis let the horses have their head. The temperature had dropped and the wind and blowing snow stung like blades of a razor against their faces. As they struggled against the wind, he thought about the blankets his wife had urged them to bring. His voice was nearly blown away by the howling wind when he shouted to his son, “Hollis, I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn.”

The horses would no longer move. The wind was too strong; the snow had blinded them. The two men could no longer feel their feet or hands anymore. They decided to try to turn the wagon on its side toe get a break from the terrible wind and cold …

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“I am worried sick. When my husband Lewis, and our son, Hollis, left this morning it was 28 degrees above zero and calm. The weather felt like spring even though it is only Jan. 12.

“About 2 o’clock this afternoon a terrible wind hit. It felt like it was going to blow the house down. It is blowing and snowing so hard I cannot see the barn. I told them to take along some heavy blankets this morning. They laughed and said they would be back early in the afternoon. It is now 7 o’clock in the evening and still no sight of them.

“It is now 8 p.m. I am praying for their safety. I have put lanterns in every window. Please, God, bring them home safely …

This story is mostly true. I have inserted details in this article about the hours before the death of Lewis and Hollis Merriman on Jan. 12, 1888 ” but the truth will never be known. Lewis was my great-grandfather and Hollis was my great-uncle.

The story of the candles and lanterns my great-grandmother placed in the windows is true. The candles, however, did not bring the results that she had hoped for. Lewis and Hollis froze to death less than a quarter-mile from the family homestead.

The blizzard that I am describing was the great blizzard of Jan. 12., 1888. It has become known during the past 119 years as the “School Children’s blizzard.”

By the morning of Jan. 13, as far as the records can determine, over 500 people lay frozen to death.Over 100 of them were school children, who were sent home from school when the blizzard hit. This great blizzard swept across the upper midwest with winds that may have exceeded 80 miles per hour and dropped several feet of snow or more. It is believed that the temperature dropped more than 50 degrees in less than two hours and 18 degrees in 3 minutes. None of the prairie states escaped its fury. Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansa and Iowa were especially hard hit. The deep cold extended clear to the Gulf of Mexico.

I thought it would be appropriate as we near the 119th anniversary of the blizzard to refocus your and your loved one’s attentions to the potential fury of our midwestern blizzards.

Thoughts of my ancestor’s tragedy come to mind as I sit here looking out the window at the snow blowing around in the parking lot. I also think of last winter, when I was caught in a blizzard with over 60 mile-per-hour winds while heavy snow pummeled my car.

Try to imagine that drive with snow plus 80 or 90 mile-per-hour winds, totally exposed in an open wagon pulled by horses.

Even though we live in a world filled with marvelous technology, we can never be a match for Mother Nature. Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in south Asia and the recent 120 mile-per-hour wind and 10 inches of rain in Oregon all serve to remind us of the potential fury of a storm.

My mother always insisted that we travel with blankets in our car in the winter. My wife is vigilant to the point of almost having no room left over in her trunk after the sleeping bags and blankets. She has developed that concern over a couple of close calls I survived through the years.

What I am asking of you now is that you talk to your children about how quickly the weather can change and the importance of being prepared.

One large candle, matches and a blanket in their vehicle can keep a person from freezing to death for up to 24 hours. If your loved ones travel without coats, gloves and warm headgear they are asking for frozen limbs in case of a vehicle malfunction or an accident. Worse yet, in an extended storm, they could face the risk of death.

If you don’t already have a winter survival kit in your car, please get one. Purchase a couple of items for a few dollars and develop a determination to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Is that too much to ask?